The urgent necessity behind the movement to end Columbus as a public symbol
Columbus is a fist.
Columbus shatters; he does not create. He has been blunt force since he landed on Hispaniola, and even dead, he is used just like this — cruelly, violently — more than 500 years later.
Too many Italian Americans claim and praise Columbus, and none of us should. Fewer and fewer do, but enough persist such that we provide cover for others who adulate him because of what he stands for. This has been a piece of the bargain for whiteness in America for us. It is untenable.
The claims that are made for Columbus connect him to an ostensible American tradition, a spirit of exploration and discovery. The connection to an American tradition is there, but it is more sinister. The truth of Columbus is a naked will to power, a bloodthirstiness so extreme in its fervor that it got him swiftly sent back to Spain after his arrival to be tried for his savagery. Columbus’ reign in Hispaniola ended with him in chains, dragged home to answer for his infamous crimes against the people, word of which had reached the court of Spain and caused alarm. In an age of barbarity, he stood out. This is the now-hidden Columbus, the truth about his bottomless ambition and heartless cruelty: He was an outrage even to the sensibilities of 15th century monarchs. And the United States claims him.
As people around the country have been increasingly successful in removing monuments to this figure, so, too, has a force risen up to oppose their work. Removal takes place through petitioning and protests: civic engagement. Protectors of the statues use force. If protestors break the law, they trespass and vandalize statues. The pro-Columbus mobs and the police sent to protect the statues use force against people. In Philadelphia, the attacks by private citizens were egregious enough that the pro-Columbus thugs ended up getting the very statue they were trying to keep in place removed. In Chicago, there have been far more threats than violence by private citizens, but our notorious police force has been liberal in its abuse of demonstrators.
While the media has often treated these groups as “both sides” of an argument, the pattern of violence that emanates from protection of the Columbus icons is directed at bodies, not statuary. Are protestors defacing statues? Yes, absolutely. Are police and others responding with clubs and pepper spray and worse? Also yes, and the difference should be obvious. For some, it is not. For some, a block of stone representing Columbus means even more than a human being. This should be illuminating.
The end of Columbus, for some, feels like the end of white hegemony. Where a monument becomes a symbol of intolerance and defending it a fight for a disappearing hierarchy, that vanishing past becomes the purpose of the engagement. When the symbol precipitates the violence, it does not just represent an oppressive figure; it is oppression incarnate. It is not in the past. The battles take place beneath the conqueror’s serene eye, batons smashing bone just as Columbus would have done it five centuries ago. That’s not a coincidence. It’s convergence.
Every group that was originally considered “other” by white Americans had to produce some proof of their commitment to the white American creed before they could be accepted as “true” American citizens in the racialized sense of that term. Above all, that meant committing to the racial hierarchy of the country. Claiming Columbus, who was already part of the American mythology, was a part of the Italian bargain. His position as the first subjugator of the Americas and his role in establishing trans-Atlantic slavery and the encomienda system, a precursor to peonage and plantations, meant the Italians who claimed him as a hero were claiming the brutal culture he founded and which white America built upon as their own. We adopted subjugation, segregation, and all of the violence they required. We committed ourselves to being part of the ground troops that defend American whiteness, and that is what Columbus stands for. Every single one of those people who stands in front of those statues in my name knows that, whether they will admit it or not.
And while times are changing, and that compact is recognized as a deal with the devil, not everyone will give it up. A subculture exists in our country that would rather see America burn than reflect the diversity that has always been here. These are both Northerners and Southerners. In cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, the conflict is over Columbus (among others). In the South, they are more likely to defend a Confederate statue. The wellspring of their bile everyplace is identical. They have the same ideology, the same belief in racial hierarchy and abrogated rights. They are all the spawn of Columbus.
Columbus has not had a steady run of praise, even among Europeans. He has never been anything but a ruthless, homicidal figure to Indigenous people. To see him as a largely beloved symbol of adventure and discovery, as some claim, is to choose whose voices matter and whose can be ignored. It is a naked assertion of the right of white people to decide who matters and who doesn’t and a celebration of the subjugation and murder of others. Critically, it affirms a worldview that proclaims not only the necessity of destroying non-European civilization but the righteousness of the act as well. It is a declaration of an upside-down moral system which puts anything that enriches white people above the value of any and all nonwhite human lives.
The dawn of Columbus’ current surge in popularity was in the early 20th century when a young, aspiring leader sought to attach tradition to his nascent ideology of ambition wrapped in propaganda and violence. Benito Mussolini saw Columbus as the exemplary fascist: A conquering, imposing force that unleashed terror and violence to smash and subjugate all resistance. The United States — plunged into economic depression; crawling with bands of klansmen and other unchecked, brutalizing racists; churning in a bubbling stew of ethnic difference and bare-knuckled urban politics — found something to like in the man who would reawaken Rome.
Neither country showed a particular love for Columbus until the height of nationalism: There was no holiday for Columbus in Italy until Mussolini invented one in 1925. (It would be quietly rescinded after he was executed for his treasonous acts.) In America, a complex political story lies behind the creation of the national Columbus Day holiday a few years after the Italian inauguration of its own. This veneration of Columbus in the U.S. was birthed in the shadow of fascism, plain and simple.
America liked the Fascists. Movie stars in photos jauntily gave what would eventually be known as the Nazi salute but which originated in Italy. When the Columbus statue was dedicated in Chicago, Mussolini’s number two and heir apparent, Italo Balbo, flew in with his squadron, and the city swooned. Front pages trumpeted the news of his arrival. There was no secret about who Mussolini was; he was a strongman from the start. America loved that. The same America that turned Emancipation into Jim Crow and that would refuse so many European Jews haven, even when the war was well underway and we knew about the camps, was enthralled with the little dictator.
Mussolini felt and understood the Italian spirit deeply, and he used that knowledge to manipulate and pervert the soul of the whole peninsula. So angry and ashamed would the nation be at its credulity after the fact that it would murder him and hang his body, like the carcass of an animal, upside-down in the street. The working people created their own law once he was struck down, forbidding the playing of recordings of his speeches anywhere for any reason, and the punishment for violation of this rule was swift and brutal. Pro-Columbus Italian Americans typically avoid discussing what Italians think about Columbus; the older culture is a little too honest with itself to accommodate American fabulism.
America, in its own way, echoes the motley ethnic melange of especially Southern Italy, which has been the pathway for empires for millennia — as well as a prized possession. What waves of occupation across those eras did not bring to the shores of Italy, commerce did; the cavalcade of travelers across the Mediterranean can be found in the DNA of Italy’s people from Naples to Palermo. America has its own brutal story of conquest; shorter but no less bloody for that, and while an endless struggle for advantage is a central theme of that story, so too is unique variety. The world has found its way to the shores of the United States — or been dragged here in chains. Whether one finds strength in the diversity and cultures of the nation or a dilution of some imagined pure white race depends a great deal on one’s philosophy of power and very often on the color of one’s skin.
Italy’s people, whether we are in Europe or here in the U.S., having survived so much with such a rich culture intact, have learned to come to terms with the truth of our nature. America has yet to learn this lesson. Moments like the dedication of the Columbus statue in Chicago and the massive Nazi convention in New York City a few years later are flushed from the national memory, as if they never happened. We continue to face violence and fascism and other forms of white supremacy to this day but do not see the connection between hiding from history and repeating it. Italian Americans who have truly and fully become white Americans embrace the fiction, aided by amnesia. Those of us who cultivate our heritage see things differently. We face history, and we face ourselves.
“Let us have a dagger between our teeth, a bomb in our hand, and an infinite scorn in our hearts,” declares Mussolini in The Doctrine of Fascism. Violence was a tool for creation in Mussolini’s world, and he used the capacity of ordinary people to commit great violence against one another as his stepladder to success. In Italy, an animosity toward the perennially annoying left opened the country to tolerance of his newly formed Fascist Party. A civilian infantry named the Black Shirts at first intimidated and later physically assaulted citizens with more liberal views. (They always begin with insults, the fascists, like ill-tempered children who do not know how far they can go but who are certain they want to go there.) The echoes of that intolerance we see in America in 2020 are not new, and the connections between Columbus and the roots of the concomitant violence are not speculative. The intimate link between fascism and Columbus was made clear as early the first Columbus Day parades in the 1930s, where one could see the spectacle of Americans saluting fascist-style by the thousands.
Even now, as hate crimes spike and the overt racism of white Americans is filmed and tweeted on phones everywhere and on a daily basis, the willfully ignorant will deny that our social fabric is tattered. And we have become so accustomed to vitriol and violence that we do not see variations of either as anything but the latest flare-up in an era of bad tempers and random fury. Our modern-day Black Shirts wander the country, and too many people ignore the threat they represent to good citizens, just as too many Italians and Germans went about their business, willfully ignorant, on the cusp of World War II.
The patterns are there to be seen, and not just among random, racist citizenry. We have an obligation to observe that the behavior of the police is by definition organized violence, so when there is evidence of a consistent lack of control anywhere among officers, that is a pattern. And that evidence abounds everywhere. Of course, beyond that, the criminality of white Americans who are enraged by the changes they see around them is ubiquitous. Italian Americans find ourselves in the position of either clinging to a jingoistic version of our heritage and taking the side of the neo-fascist forces in our country or embracing our more complex and diverse history and culture and helping to lead America out of this period of chaos. Descent into the darkness of iron rulers and death camps is a closer cultural memory for us than it is for many other white Americans. There is shame in that but also opportunity, because we may be more attuned to the warning signs of such times. There is a chance for us to be a breakwater, if we will act.
In mid-July, a public event was held to rally for the removal of Chicago’s largest Columbus statue. It was located in Grant Park, which is the main park of the city, its front lawn. The police descended on the crowd that day as if they had a grudge. One legal observer said they did, that protestors had been able to push them back during an earlier encounter, and they returned with something to prove, which came in the form of clubs and mace. Their macing was so out of control that they injured their own officers. By the end of the attack by police, the Chicago Street Medic Alliance had treated civilians with 209 pepper spray injuries, 39 lacerations, and 54 head injuries. In the most well-known and most egregious act of violence that day, an 18-year-old young lady by the name of Miracle Boyd was hit so hard in the face by a police officer that her front teeth were broken.
Mussolini’s Fascist Italy was embraced with enthusiasm by Chicago, and when a statue honoring Columbus, an important symbol for the dictator, was to be unveiled in Chicago, Mussolini sent Italo Balbo, his heir-apparent and co-founder of the Fascist Party, along with 25 seaplanes. The dedication of the monument attracted 25,000 people and its base includes a dedication from the brutal dictator. This figurative marriage of the fascist and the colonizer was the symbol to which police were deployed and on behalf of which police battered citizens.
It is a grim fact that, even as Columbus’ figure has been swept from Grant Park, both the words of Mussolini and a monument honoring Balbo remain. Columbus’ legacy across the centuries, the conquest and bloodshed that can be marked with a starting point at his feet, found a kind of apotheosis in Mussolini’s fascism, and the turmoil in modern American politics bears the unmistakable stamp of that hateful, authoritarian, violent legacy. It could not be any more closely wed to the white supremacy that is the source of endless cruelties in this country, including chattel slavery, the foundational crime of America and an act first seen in this hemisphere on the orders of Columbus.
As should be apparent by now, this is not meant to be a scholarly treatise, but it cannot be written without at least some description of the crimes of Columbus including scholarly documentation. The opposition demands it. A logic of violence simply denies what is real and uses force to impose a version of its own reality. In this case, it constructs a false scholarship to deny the vast chorus of incontrovertible claims against Columbus. One will hear defenders of Columbus repeat over and over that his crimes were not so severe and that the evidence against him comes from insufficient and questionable sources. What follows is a brief overview of the sort of material that is out there, familiar to some but perhaps new to others. This section will certainly not hold any new interest to those who have fought against the Columbus myth. Without it, however, claims of exaggeration and untruth, no matter how absurd, will inevitably be leveled.
The year 1992 was unsurprisingly a banner year for Columbus scholarship. Five hundred years after his arrival in the Caribbean, Columbus received a great deal of attention, both positive and negative. In this respect, and in many others, the article by Delno West published in The William and Mary Quarterly in April of that year is a representative piece. It also stands out in that it purports to be a review of 25 years of research on Columbus, yet manages to avoid mentioning a single act of violence committed by him or his soldiers, on his voyages or during occupation. In the very last paragraph of the 25-page article, he concedes that “[t]oday we are concerned with race and gender, environmental history, and comparative cultural studies,” but is unable to even bring himself to admit research related to these topics had yet been published, tersely observing instead that “Columbus and the events of I492 lend themselves to these inquiries” (West, 1992, p. 277). It is the quintessential hegemonic stance, denying even the existence of voices that do not praise the murderous invader.
Among the scholarship West denies the existence of in his alleged review of literature are Columbus and Genocide (Stone, 1975); “Encountering Columbus,” in which Deena Gonzales describes how the voices of the dominant culture “dismiss Chicana/metiza concerns about the genocide that the ‘father of the Americas’ unleashed on the Americas …” (1982); “Columbus and the making of historical myth,” in which Dr. Barbara Ransby refers to Columbus as an “avaricious, slave-trading pirate” (1992); and John D. Hazlett’s 1983 article in which he describes the “spectre of genocide upon which the establishment of European ‘civilization’ in the Western world depended” as inescapable in even the famous biography by Washington Irving. This is just a tiny sample of the many articles written between 1967 and 1992, across fields from history to sociology to literature, recounting the horrific details of the explorer’s legacy. West knew he could lie about the Columbus research and this stunning example of academic malpractice would be ignored — rewarded, even. This is the position from which the scholarship cited by defenders of Columbus proceeds.
What West’s counterfeit review and other encomia simply ignore, because it is impossible to deny in its face, is the evidence at hand of the many atrocities of Columbus. Unlike other historical events centuries away, this evidence does not require inferences from indirect occurrences or word-of-mouth passed down across centuries. There is a solid collection of literature that can be referenced, beginning with the writings of Columbus himself, which reveal the many cruelties of the man. Columbus began from his very first encounters to think about violence and taking the freedom of the people he met. Remarkably, his defenders will call him peace loving. In his own words, he meets Indigenous people and immediately has thoughts of subjugation and enslavement. In his own journal, he writes shortly after his first encounter that “with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them” (Columbus, Markham, C. R., & del Pozzo Toscanelli, 1893, p. 41). Even before that calculation, he has determined that he will enslave these people who he also describes as peaceful and gentle. “They should be good servants,” he writes in his journal as though speaking to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, his sponsors. “I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses” (Columbus, Markham, C. R., & del Pozzo Toscanelli, 1893, p. 38).
Michele de Cuneo, an aristocrat who traveled with Columbus, provides us a sense of his attitude towards women when he tells the story of how he treated a woman who was given to him as a gift by Columbus:
When I was in the boat, I took a beautiful Cannibal girl and the admiral gave her to me. Having her in my room and she being naked as is their custom, I began to want to amuse myself with her. Since I wanted to have my way with her and she was not willing … I got a rope and tied her up so tightly that she made unheard of cries which you wouldn’t have believed. At the end, we got along so well that, let me tell you, it seemed she had studied at a school for whores. (Cuneo, 1963)
When we delve deeper into Columbus’ savagery, we inevitably end up at his trial, where he was found guilty of barbaric acts against the people of Hispaniola and the Americas by the Spanish crown. The man who was sent to replace him as viceroy of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) collected a set of 23 testimonies from the island representing both supporters of Columbus and his detractors. His savagery and that of his brothers was not denied by anybody. The slaughter they oversaw, the mutilation, the child prostitution they countenanced were all dutifully recounted by the witnesses and recorded by Francisco de Bobadilla, who had already been named Columbus’ replacement by the time the report was assembled, which means among other things that he had no motivation to misrepresent the disgraced former viceroy. His fate was already sealed, as was that of his brothers. The barbarity of the men had become widely known and an embarrassment to the Spanish crown.
Men, women, and children were murdered for sport; tribute in gold was demanded and both hands of those who did not produce were cut off (Tremlett, 2006). A woman said the Columbus family came from a working-class background, and Columbus’s brother cut the tongues out of her and the woman she was speaking to, with Columbus’ approval (Albardaner, 2015). A man was caught stealing grain and his nose and ears were cut off (Tremlett, 2006). We know these things not because there is a copy of these accounts available for reading in English but through the reports of scholars who have translated pieces of the documents themselves (Tremlett, 2006). Such is the power of the symbol of Columbus that this critical source material is not available to many American scholars and hidden from the English-speaking general public (Tremlett, 2006).
And then there is the matter of genocide. It takes a kind of building up to, this word of such tremendous moral weight and vast scope. Even when one is well aware of the capacity of Columbus and his men to destroy whole cultures, it can be worthwhile to build up to this heinous crime as a reminder that there are many signs that Columbus the historical figure was fully capable of his horrific crimes, including genocide.
One scholar estimates a slaughter of five million Tainos alone, the people of the island of Hispaniola and other nearby locales, in the first four years after his arrival, from 8 million to 3 million. By 1543, the civilization was referred to in documents in the past tense, as no living person was known to be from that culture (Churchill, 1994). This is genocide, it is just one example of one society, it was replicated throughout the Caribbean and generally in the Americas, and it begins with Columbus. A commonly accepted estimate is that 95% of the pre-Columbus population in this hemisphere was wiped out in the two-and-a-half centuries beginning with Columbus’ arrival (Bartrop, 2007). The tens of millions of people that represents — the actual number of murdered people— is forever lost and a topic of discussion for scholars. It is a number so vast it dwarfs the imagination. It has been rightly called “one of the greatest and most extensive human catastrophes in history” (Bartrop, 2007, p. 183). In a recent hearing, Chicago Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez rightly named it a “crime against humanity.”
I am not attempting to make a case beyond the facts. I understand there are those who will never see, or will always try to explain away. The arguments in favor of Columbus are meaningless. I acknowledge they exist; I am not obligated to do any more, given the overwhelming historicity of his crimes and their consequences. I know apologies are made for Columbus, and that whole careers can be made from making those apologies. I am disgusted by them; they will never represent me, and this is my principle point in this section. There is nothing in the culture I was raised in that countenances these heinous acts. This is not of my culture as an Italian. Anyone who embraces them is not of my culture. I repudiate them. That is all.
Italian Americans who defend Columbus say the rest of us don’t see the situation properly. After the removal of the statues, a group of Italian Americans held a news conference asking for peace. They just wanted to talk with the people who opposed Columbus, the leader of the group said. A young woman from the Indigenous community saw that plea and reached out to him via social media, offering to have that conversation.
“The next Indian Statue I see I will piss on!” was his reply. He then told her he would urinate on her as well. Other Italian Americans joined in, presumably friends of his, as they were on his social media page. “Go move to Venezuela or Congo!” one wrote. “You are an animal,” another said. “F**k you people.” The woman had made no defense of the removal of the statues. She had specifically said she was responding to his plea for dialogue. These were the responses she got when she took the pro-Columbus Italian Americans at their word.
This example is not isolated. Another woman who, in a news story, defended Miracle, the girl who a police officer hit in the face, had her life threatened. Alderwoman Rodriguez Sanchez was called a series of insults including, strangely, “bedwench” and “whore” for defending the removal of the statues. As the head of an Italian American organization that publicly supports the removal of the statues, I have received many, many threats and insults, and the same man who threatened to urinate on the woman who wanted to make peace has offered my home address and cell phone number to anyone who wants it in a social media post that also includes identifying photos and calls me an enemy of Italian Americans.
We are drowning in a culture of violence which needs to bury its dead and bloody founders if we are going to survive. Columbus is not a founder of the U.S., but he is a founder of the system of brutality that has been a plague on these continents since his arrival. In retrospect, it may seem as though the European attack on the Americas was inevitable, but this is the weight of history bearing down on us. Decisions were made that determined how these two worlds met. Columbus set the tone in the Americas for what engagement — and, as it turned out, occupation — would be like, ensured that mutilation, enslavement, and wholesale slaughter were considered ordinary methods of governance.
From the cracked teeth of Miracle Boyd to the online racism triggered by the removal of the statues, the contemporary ferity that has accompanied conversation about Columbus in cities like Chicago is unleashed because the legacy of the figure himself is a barbarous one. We must not make the mistake of thinking this is a conversation about symbolism. This is about real violence happening now. To confront that culture of violence, which infests our politics and our society at large, we have to stop venerating people, living or dead, who personify it.
Gabriel Piemonte is the founder and president of the Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago, former editor of the Hyde Park Herald and Lakefront Outlook, and the founder of the nonprofits Save the Shrine and Woodlawn Voices and Visions (now closed). He lives in Chicago with his wife Mary.
Albardaner, F. L. (2015). A silk trail to Columbus. Canadian Nautical Research Society Conference
Bartrop, P. R. (2007). Episodes from the genocide of the Native Americans: a review essay. Genocide Studies and Prevention, 2(2), 183–190.
Churchill, W. (1994). History Not Taught Is History Forgot: Columbus’ Legacy of Genocide.
Columbus, C., Markham, C. R., & del Pozzo Toscanelli, P. (1893). The Journal of Christopher Columbus (during His First Voyage, 1492–93) and Documents Relating the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real. Printed for the Hakluyt society.
Cuneo, M. D. (1963). Letter on the Second Voyage, 28 October 1495'. Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyage of Christopher Columbus.
Gonzalez, D. (1982). Encountering Columbus. National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Annual Conference. Paper 4.. http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/naccs/20_Anniversary/Chicano_Studies/4
Hazlett, J. D. (1983). Literary Nationalism and Ambivalence in Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. American literature, 55(4), 560–575.
Phillips Jr, W. D., & Phillips, C. R. (1992). The impact of 1992 on Christopher Columbus. The Mariner’s Mirror, 78(4), 469–483.
Ransby, B. (1992). Columbus and the making of historical myth. Race & Class, 33(3), 79–86.
Stone, E. T. (1975). Columbus and Genocide. American Heritage Publishing Company, Incorporated.
Tinker, T., & Freeland, M. (2008). Thief, slave trader, murderer: Christopher Columbus and Caribbean population decline. Wicazo Sa Review, 23(1), 25–50.
Tremlett, G. (2006). Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean. The Guardian (UK). http://www. guardian. co. uk/spain/article/0, 1838823(00).
West, D. (1992). Christopher Columbus and His Enterprise to the Indies: Scholarship of the Last Quarter Century. The William and Mary Quarterly, 49(2), 254–277.